Waverley residents are at the cusp of having all their local planning decisions made by the Planning Inspectorate based in Bristol.
If this occurs, your local elected councillors will no longer have any power to vote for or against applications, as has always been the way in Waverley and virtually every other borough in the country. Both your and your neighbours’ applications will be decided by someone who lives hundreds of miles away.
An appalling performance in planning applications over several years and lost appeals has prompted the government to announce that Waverley is on the edge of being stripped of all its planning powers and being placed under ‘special measures’.
A look into the performance of the Western Planning Committee covering the Farnham area will reveal why. In the two years following its first meeting on 23/06/20, the committee voted to overturn Planning Officers’ (PO) decisions in 46% of all applications.
When a planning application is submitted for a simple extension or a new housing estate, it goes before a Planning Officer (PO), someone employed by Waverley, usually with a degree in Town Planning. Even a new officer will have recently completed years of full-time training in planning rules and regulations. A PO will review the application, conduct a site visit and check if it complies with local and national planning policies before issuing their recommendation to either approve or refuse.
At the committee, councillors can support the officers’ recommendation or say that the PO has erred and incorrectly made its recommendation. The committee has to be sure that the PO has wrongly applied planning laws when recommending, clearly state why, and give strong reasons for refusal. The risk of incorrectly overturning a recommendation gives the applicant strong grounds to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. If it finds that the PO’s original recommendation was correct, the borough moves a step closer to losing its planning powers. It can also be forced to pay the applicant’s costs, which can run into many thousands and is paid for by local residents.
The Western Planning Committees’ record of overturning 46% of POs’ recommendations is unheard of and means either Waverley POs are consistently getting it wrong, or something else is happening. I don’t think these are all applications for big housing estates on the Greenbelt either – seemingly uncontroversial householder applications are just as likely to fall foul of them.
Looking at the results of the subsequent appeals suggests the blame is not with the POs – nationally, 26% of appeals are allowed. Still, success in appeals against decisions by the WPC is more than double this, with the vast majority being allowed.
Q The question should then be asked, why were so many applications which should be approved being refused by WBC?
To overturn a POs recommendation, a councillor has to propose that the committee should do so and give a reason why. A review of WBC meetings found that 72% of decisions to overturn a POs recommendation were proposed by either Farnham’s Cllrs, Carole Cockburn and Simon Dear or both of them together.
The two were the only Conservative councillors on an 11-member committee, yet this duo was the driving force behind the WBC’s unprecedented refusal rates. Of the appeals that were allowed, 75% had been proposed to be refused by these two councillors.
A committee decision wins by a simple majority; if more people vote for a decision than against it, then it wins. However, councillors can also vote to abstain, which means decisions can be made with only a minority voting for them. The majority of WBC were members of the new Farnham Residents Group, who were much more likely to abstain from votes on applications where they were uncertain of the correct decision – given the widespread area they were covering, the intricacies of planning laws and lack of background in planning, it could be seen as an honest approach to say ‘I’m not sure’ in these types of votes. But doing so allowed the two conservative councillors to dominate the WBC decisions and bring the entire planning department to its knees.
Turnover rates of disillusioned POs are now so high in the planning department that applicants will often go through 3 or 4 officers before one stays in the borough long enough to issue a decision, with the rest following the former head of planning, Zac Ellwood, in quitting Waverley entirely. The WW has watched a PO breakdown and cry at a committee meeting after Cllr Cockburn described her knowledge as ‘disappointing’ and added that ‘this planning application must be refused!’ – WBC refused it and then predictably allowed an appeal a few months later.
Pre-2015, the Conservative councillors had a stronghold in the area, but the disdain for their handling of the Farnham East regeneration led to the creation of the Farnham Residents Group. The new party quickly gained power and popularity while unhappy residents voted Conservative councillors out en masse. The most recent council elections cemented this new power balance. Still, the efforts of two remaining Conservative councillors have meant that Waverley could lose the right to make its own decisions and be ruled over by the central Conservative government, removing power from FRG and handing it back to Cllr Cockburn’s party.
While the implications seem Machiavellian, Cllr Cockburn is an exceptionally experienced councillor with a 22-year term under her belt. Waverley has never faced losing its decision-making power to central government before. Still, within a few years of her party losing control in the area, this has all changed, and the results of the WBC decisions show that she and her fellow conservative councillor drove us to this point.
We can only speculate about this, but there is perhaps at least a lesson to be learned for new councillors on the importance of ensuring they’re prepared to vote and avoid abstaining. Otherwise, they are deferring the control back to a minority and allowing the power to be taken out of their hands.